Losing past haunts WKU even now

WKU head coach Willie Taggart looks on in frustration during the second half of Sept. 18’s home-opening against the Hoosiers. The Toppers fell to the Hoosiers 38-21.

Jonathan Lintner

Different coach. New traditions. An enthused audience.

But the Toppers’ performance on Saturday was a classic case of WKU football — no doubt about it.

As much as this bunch wants to act like the past is in the past and plays no part on the present, it’s a losing history that’s haunting them to this day. That’s a day in which, for the second week in a row, WKU rushed ahead 7-0 and saw it all fall apart as fast as Willie McNeal can run.

Not only have the Toppers forgotten how to win during their now-23-game losing streak, but they’ve forgotten how to get in a position to win. And that’s a scary thing for a team as overmatched as WKU has been against non-conference opponents Nebraska, Kentucky and Indiana.

“I just thought guys lost focus,” Head Coach Willie Taggart said. “I think our team has to do a better job of dealing with the highs and lows. We have a high and they get excited, and then they lose their focus and put us in those third-and-long situations.

“And it’s hard to make a play call on third and 20.”

It’s only appropriate that this harsh realization came to light on the same day that former coach David Elson entered Houchens-Smith Stadium in a different shade of red. Elson, the defensive quality control coach for IU, earned his first win at Smith Stadium since WKU knocked off Murray State in the home opener in 2008.

Two home openers later, the Toppers still can’t shake the losing mentality. Because unlike Elson, they’re stuck in bad times on what — at least according to an 0-3 record — is looking like a bad team.

The Toppers allowed IU to convert on 10 of the Hoosiers’ 12 third downs on Saturday. Just when the WKU defense thought it had IU on the ropes, quarterback Ben Chappell would break the Toppers’ momentum time after time.

Also consider an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on junior defensive end Jared Clendenin after his first-half sack. Clendenin, who came into Saturday with 1.5 career sacks, didn’t know how to react after sacking IU quarterback Ben Chappell in a third-down situation.

Clendenin couldn’t act like he’d been there, done that, because, quite simply, he never had.

Sophomore quarterback Kawaun Jakes called Clendenin’s syndrome — as well as what the Toppers’ faced after going ahead 7-0 for the second week in a row — “happy feet.”

“The first drive we were doing fine, but after that it seemed like we just got too happy and complacent,” Jakes said.

This is a bunch, Taggart said, that needs to learn how to handle the ups and downs of a whole football game. But it’s safe to say WKU is used to the downs — 23 downs in a row — so make the focus the ups.

The Toppers face one more difficult non-conference opponent in South Florida before opening Sun Belt Conference play against Florida International — a winnable game if Taggart’s squad has ever seen one.

It’s then that junior safety Ryan Beard hopes the Toppers can overcome the “snowball effect” they’ve become accustomed to suffering from.

“It’s a challenge,” Beard said. “When we had Bobby’s touchdown, we were all up, and then one bad thing happens and it’s that snowball effect. We just need that one turning point in our season that really shows us that it’s OK for us to be successful. We don’t have to lose another game.

“It’s that one point that just clicks. I don’t know what it’s going to take, but we’ve got to find it.”